Getting more done with less?

GETTING MORE DONE WITH LESS?…. John Aravosis raises a point this morning that I’ve been pondering a bit myself.

I’ve heard people say that it’s not fair to criticize the Democrats for botching health care reform because the Democrats never truly had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Sure, they have 60 votes in principle, the argument goes, but with Lieberman, Nelson, Landrieu, and Bayh counted as four of those votes, it’s not really a solid 60.

Perhaps. But then how was George Bush so effective in passing legislation during his presidency when he never had more than 55 Republicans in the Senate? In fact, during Bush’s most effective years, from 2001 to 2005, the GOP had a grand total of 50, and then 51, Senators. The slimmest margin possible.

John notes some of legislative successes of the Bush era — nearly all of which came during Bush’s first three years in office, when the GOP had a slim-to-nonexistent majority — before asking, “So what’s the difference? Why with 60 votes are Democrats so ineffective, but with 50 votes Republicans excel?”

Glenn Reynolds raised an almost identical point a few days ago, arguing that Bush “get a lot done with fewer votes in Congress.”

We talked a bit about this on Saturday, but John’s questions are important and worth considering further.

First, it can’t be emphasized enough that congressional Democrats were willing to work with the Bush White House (before and after 9/11), which makes legislating easier. When No Child Left Behind passed, for example, it was because Ted Kennedy worked with Bush to make it happen. Indeed, Bush’s domestic policy legacy is limited, but the major legislative victories came when Dems endorsed the then-president’s requests. (Indeed, congressional Dems always worked with Bush in good faith, ready to negotiate — despite questions surround the legitimacy of his presidency.) Conditions are obviously different now, and congressional Republicans are running a scorched-earth campaign against the Obama administration.

Second, mandatory supermajorities in the Senate didn’t exist until very recently. In the Bush era, Senate Democrats were reluctant to filibuster everything, fearing a public backlash and sensitive to being labeled “obstructionist.” In the Obama era, Senate Republicans have no such fears, creating an unprecedented legislative dynamic. (The media helps encourage this, by pretending it’s normal.)

And third, I suppose it’s worth emphasizing that Bush’s presidency was a humiliating failure, and doesn’t deserve much in the way of credit. Thanks to Dems who were willing to work with him, Bush scored some legislative victories, but a) those “victories” were awful for the country; and b) they were far and few between for the last five years of Bush’s eight years in office.

Obama, meanwhile, left to clean up some of the biggest messes in generations, in the midst of an economic collapse and two wars, is not exactly accomplishment-free after 11 months. Despite unprecedented GOP obstructionism, Obama got a recovery package through Congress that rescued the economy from a depression, passed the most progressive budget bill in a generation, got a Supreme Court nominee confirmed, passed a national service bill, passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, passed new regulations of the credit card industry, passed new regulation of the tobacco industry, and is nearing passage of a health care bill.